“NSEWL is not a true city subway or metro system for getting around town” – Academic explains complex issues plaguing MRT system

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Why hasn’t the Singapore government found a way to solve the MRT issue by now? Can’t they tell that people are frustrated?

Singapore Institute of Technology’s Vice-President of Planning, Mun-Heng Tsoi, stepped up to answer this pertinent question posted on an online forum yesterday, explaining the complex issues plaguing Singapore’s rail transport system.

Writing on online question-and-answer forum Quora, Tsoi – who has formerly served with organisations like the Ministry of Defence and the Republic of Singapore Air Force – shed light on the issues that caused the Singapore rail system to be in the poor state it is in today:

“We allowed the MRT system to be run on economic (or profit making) considerations, assuming that somehow the market will result in “efficient allocation of resources”. We know what happened. Engineering and maintenance was sacrificed to maintain profitability. Knowledge and skills were allowed to leak out. Over time, attitudes deteriorated. That fatal accident involving irregular release of people to work on a live track is a symptom of an attitude problem.”

Tsoi’s comprehensive response is the type of response one might expect a government representative to express. Read it here in full:

The MRT issue is a complex one – and complex issues are inherently difficult to solve. The second question is easier to answer. Of course they can tell – it was one of the causes of the election results in 2011 and the post of Transport Minister has proven to be a truly hot seat. So one could surmise that the “Singapore government” is desperately trying to resolve the MRT issue before they get another setback at the next election.

But why is it so complex?

To begin with , there are multiple systems involved: trains, power supply, tracks, weather/climate, control and signalling systems, even platform doors. A look at the problems that have cropped up in recent years have shown up problems in all these diverse systems. A simple thing like a faulty switch on a platform door can hold up the trains (I was caught in that – gave up waiting). Some are difficult to even troubleshoot – like the malfunctioning train that was sending out spurious signals and took a team of expert engineers to tease out the fact that problems happened when this particular train was passing by.

The more systems there are, the more ways in which they interact, the more ways in which seemingly small failures can affect the larger system.

The current signalling upgrade is causing a lot of problems – partly because of the complexity of the system. There is no way to detect some of the design flaws until you run it on full operating load. Then you have a failure. And upset a lot of people.

One factor which few really understand is the environment. Singapore is a hot and wet country – this causes problems like corrosion, and the ingress of water in the tunnels. Most of the systems in use were designed and used in cooler and drier climates – our climate is an additional stress on the system. Hence we had that power trip caused by water seeping into electrical systems, and the recent flooding incident.

Another factor is the fact that this is a live system where maintenance and upgrading work is restricted to a few hours a night. Upgrading old systems take months and years because of this.

Yet there are examples of complex systems that work reliably. The difference is people. Or more specifically, their knowledge, skills and attitudes. At the centre of this are the engineers and technicians who keep the hardware running. And here is where the answer lies. We allowed the MRT system to be run on economic (or profit making) considerations, assuming that somehow the market will result in “efficient allocation of resources”. We know what happened. Engineering and maintenance was sacrificed to maintain profitability. Knowledge and skills were allowed to leak out. Over time, attitudes deteriorated. That fatal accident involving irregular release of people to work on a live track is a symptom of an attitude problem.

Put the right people in place, and then they can work on those engineering problems and put them right. But it takes time. The people who left the system won’t come back. The new ones have little knowledge and experience. It will take time to rebuild the engineering and maintenance expertise they had 30 years ago. It takes time to change a culture which has been lost. I think it will take at least 10 years.

There’s also a system level problem. The original NS/EW MRT system is not a true city subway or metro system for getting around town. It is actually a commuter or regional train system to bring in the masses from the suburbs into the city (The NE line is also a regional line serving a separate region). The bus system was modified to reduce duplication with the MRT system. That means putting all the eggs in one basket. It worked well when it was still reliable, and became a victim its own success. The more people relied on the MRT, the bigger the problem a breakdown causes.

Masses of people depend on the MRT to get to work or school, and a breakdown means alternatives have to be found for thousands and tens of thousands of people at short notice. This is not a trivial problem. The first challenge is to figure out what happened, and then provide an estimate of how long it takes to fix the problem, and then inform everyone, and the activate a fleet of buses. Inevitably, the initial diagnosis is wrong, the estimate is over-optimistic, the message going out is garbled or missed etc. One can only hope they get better at this, but it will always be a major challenge because so many people are dependent on the system not failing.

The additional of the Circle line and Downtown line is finally helping to provide interconnections that make it possible to divert around a breakdown. But the basic design problem is still there – until the need for masses of people to head into the city for work at the same time is alleviated by the creation of new CBDs, telecommuting etc.

Disclaimer: I am not a railway engineer. I don’t work for SMRT, SBST or LTA. I do know some people in these organisations, and I know they are trying very hard. My background is in aircraft engineering, maintenance and operations and so I can appreciate the complexity of the issues.

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37 comments

  1. George Lou says:

    possible application other aspects in the system. Manpower management and wrongful use of performance criterion, and mismanagement of human resources and more.

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    William Lim ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    why is this academic making excuses for a failed mrt system?
    oh, its very complex. oh, its the weather..blah blah blah.
    and the communication.

    look at other contries, they have aging systems, yet they manage better. weather? the mrt in shenzhen, hk and guandong also face weather problems. floods, heavy rains and extreme cold and hot weather. and they are even more loaded. did they breakdown? and our neighbour has simiar weather. did their mrt break down so often in kl?

    no more excuses. its been 5 years.

  3. Facebook Profile photo
    William Lim ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    why is this academic making excuses for a failed mrt system?
    oh, its very complex. oh, its the weather..blah blah blah.
    and the communication.

    look at other contries, they have aging systems, yet they manage better. weather? the mrt in shenzhen, hk and guandong also face weather problems. floods, heavy rains and extreme cold and hot weather. and they are even more loaded. did they breakdown? and our neighbour has simiar weather. did their mrt break down so often in kl?

    no more excuses. its been 5 years.

  4. Our MRT does not cater to the current loads.
    Remember those clauses (previously) displayed inside buses – about maximum capacity of how many adults & children are allowed to carry per vehicle due to safety reason?
    We knew such common-sense limitations during the good old days. Yet we don’t know this logic in the 21st Century.
    Just want more population growth to increase support votes as newly- adopted Citizens with jobs are great contributors.
    Even Lady Macbeth and Jiang Qing (Mao Tse Tung’s wife) have to kowtow and salute to our Leaders to acquire their knowledge.

  5. It’s simple logic. Time & more time is needed to completely solve most of today’s Mrt problems. This is a commodity that we don’t have enough or not allowed to have. Also stop using cheap China parts just to manage the profit margins. That will be a good start for a change.

    1. I came to Shanghai in May 1995, the month Shanghai metro line#1 went into service. Today there are 17 metro lines up and running in this big city, serving more than 10 millions users daily. I have been commuting to work daily using this massive underground network for years and you will be disappointed to learn that the system is so efficient and robust that it has achieved a close to zero breakdown so far.

      I am still living in Shanghai and in fact when I read the news of our MRT the first question in my mind is:

      Why don’t we turn to China for assistance?

  6. A very detailed write up on the woes surrounding the infrastructure and framework supporting the rail system. I appreciate the effort and courage. Taking a step back, are all our transport system be it coe car, buses, taxi and rail (all local transfers) on a profit generating model? Do we have a choice ? Even there is one, it is very restrictive. The culture and attitude raised in the discussion may be a result of the work environment vis-a-vis compensation and the high debt surrounding most of us.. When we look back, we have built a very effective workforce through our education but are we are harnessing, embracing and developing the talents we have? Many times the self-reliance built up from the past efforts from our founding and forefathers seem to be eroding. The sustainability and future are bleak and to rebuilt “the leak out knowledge” as described by author, may not be swift and fast.. At the current state, would it be time to take a hard look at the framework / policy; many faults and knowledge may have fallen through the gaps and we are not arresting and resolving them. As mentioned, beside the transport issue, there could be many economic and environmental issues are complex that may need a resolution at national level.

    1. Samantha Tan It a tough question to answer. There are many aspects. Firstly, are there jobs availability in the market when local graduates with various discipline. Secondly is the organisation willing to accept older worker with wealth of experience but doesn’t have the academic paper. Thirdly, the compensation package offered for that post and the culture and work environment attract the people. There are many scenarios, the situation is painted simply by saying local are picky. Are we? The clarification has not been make by MOM or Union leaders why there are many PMETs above 40 retrenched (about 15k-20k) and still can find jobs in a globalisation economy in Singapore.. Many times I received feedback no organisation want to hire them. Some even have to switch industry which the technical skills set may not matched. I have also read about the gap in one of job portal opening flood gate to FTs.. Its a mix bag of complex self generating problems surrounding the job market in Singapore.. I have read many good initiatives in South Korea, Canada, Australia, New Zealand; they ensure the employability of their local by working with employers and incentivize them to built the main core of locals supporting the important infrastructure and technology. They are not the supporter of outsourcing when such important network (transport, engineering, finance, technology,etc) breakdowns.. The downstream economical cost has a lot of implications on economy. I read the MTR breakdowns in HK, I have taken them and also in Taiwan. The trip reminded me of the good old days..

    2. Are wages the only way to determine employee attitude as well as attrition? How about the lack of engineers in this country? I wonder if it truly boils down to wages and career prospects or is it an image problem.

      I have also always thought that there is an antagonistic relationship between SMRT and LTA.

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        Andrew Wah ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

        Singapore focus on engineering…? It’s a joke.
        Govt president scholars for this year not a single one was awarded for engineering courses.
        Where’s the drive from the top?

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    Gary Seet ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    No worries folks.. the gross incompetence of LHL and his cronies will continue … more train breakdowns, inadequate health facilities , more deaths from unecessary road accidents involving electric bikes, more PMETS out of work, higher cost of living, more undesirable foreign immigrants, economic unsustainability, bad foreign policies, bad investment policies of SWF, increasing arrogance of the ruling elite… the list goes on.

    Can’t hide gross incompetence in the complex business of governance and there’s plenty of it today in government! Too many self serving paper generals, scholars on the YES gravy train. Dissatisfaction, unhappiness will grow in tandem. Even the 70% will not be spared and then poof…the inevitable will happen!

  8. When u decided to increase populations to 5.6 million. U never decide to spend money to cater infrastructure to support them. U are becoming like a 3rd world, where a motorbike carrying 4 riders. ‍♂️ but you have catered to increasing your income and and revenue for businesses that are related to u. . I’m sure u are celebrating your way to the bank Everyday at our misfortune. Common people, Don’t be a stupid fool. Pls wake up next election.

  9. Why pay a CEO over $1.4million/year. This amount can pay up to 3 to 5 best engineers to solve the problem. We should not have military men who are incapable, no experience and worst thing do even want to take responsibility. Is this the kind of leadership this new generation of PAP wants and you idiots voted for? Good-bye to the good old days of LKY where everything works.

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    Chia James ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    What this guy said is all good and logical but doesn’t explain why the breakdowns are predominantly during peak hours. We all know that our population has grown too big for the system and their solution of adding trains during peak hour is working the system near it’s design load limit or maybe even surpassed it. As long as you keep working a system near it’s limit for prolonged period, it’s going keep breaking down whatever you do.

  11. Is this SMRT
    Or
    Singaporeans attitude n mindset
    Talk
    No Action
    Laying blame is a past time
    How about being positive
    Come out with solutions
    If everyone contribute positively
    We may have a
    Wonderful Singapore
    Culture of
    Kindness
    Compassion

  12. Enough with all these “complex” and problematic explanations etc etc.Just get down to the public with a real solution.Who needs another explanation here.Explanations doesnt solve any problems. Either you can do it or you cant..If not…then get lost.

  13. Edwin Kwan says:

    Ok. But the head of Public Transport Council said there are rising costs and he needed to be cognizant of that. So, is he hinting that MRT fares will go up ? While service and reliability goes down. What the shit is that logic ? Elections is coming! People have short memory over things that don’t really affect them daily like PE. But the MRT problem affects more people in a condensed period of time and the pain is not going away. And meanwhile they see high level ministers and civil servants paid a lot of money when the population are going through downsizing. This pain will remain till the next GE. And no amount of freebies will ease the pain. Because you just can’t give everyone who is affected something. To sweeten them. The last time they just gave to the Pioneer / senior generation. And the Budget deficit will balloon and will the government draw from reserves ?

  14. It takes an engineer from aerospace to understand this and I wonder if the engineers understood this. Yes, it’s indeed a very complex problem and meanwhile if you are a commuter, have a plan B when MRT breaks down and be patient!

  15. Nasir Bj says:

    It’s a telling sign of a crumbling system where its leader never been accountable Nor take responsibility of all the error and poor decision made!

  16. Benny Tan says:

    In the first place who’s stupid idea was it to let millions in without thinking whether our infrastructure can handle it. Of course this current system cannot handle the load. Did this current administration even think that they would not be plague by horrendous problems? Are they so highly paid and living a life of luxury that it’s an issue that could be solved easily by getting ‘so call officers ‘ from the army who knows Jack Shit about running a transport system for about 6 million people? Are they so Blind to the fact that this current administration don’t even want to listen to its citizens but just shut them up with a few coins thrown at them. I use to be so proud of our trains when it first came out to the point that I tell my foreign friends never mine if chewing gum is band in Spore cause our trains according to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew would not be stuck and people will get to work on time. So maybe it’s high time to bring back chewing gum

  17. Let’s say that you are correct in your analysis. What is the govt going to do. We cannot have a system that is not fully connected least a serious accident happened one fine day, or maybe the whole system collapsed due to the load and stress.
    Alternatively why don’t they plan for a complete shutdown for a year to overhaul the system and a plan for the busses to take over the transporting system.

  18. He tried to divert all your attentions, about MRT frequently breakdown, late arrival, flooding of rail tracks, deteriorated spare parts and so on. No bus services for commuters at crowd waiting hall..during emergency..

  19. Rail operation is bleeding $$$. Budget for engineering and maintenance is insufficient (check: HK MTR spends 5x more on this). It should get much better if fares are raised. But this is a political hot potato. Commercially this rail bizness should have terminated.

    1. Ace Chew says:

      This is the exact word when i spoke to an American today. He visited spore 20 years ago and revisit recently and he say he can feel spore is very different now as compared to 20 years ago. He can sense tension and everyone is so uptight.

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        Chia James ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

        Singaporeans are fast becoming the minority in Singapore if not already. I think feeling a little tension and uptight is an understatement.

    1. I suspect that some of the issues go beyond maintenance. A heavily used transport system, to work reliably, must be designed with a lot of resilience and redundancy. Any shortcuts or savings made during design and construction for economical reasons are now translating in more frequent breakdowns. Increased maintenance alone cannot resolve shortcomings in the original design or construction.

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